It was a typically hot and muggy August day in upper Manhattan. A band of fast thinking wise guys from Canarsie had planned a meet up with a Dutchman from out of town. They intended to engage in the biggest fraud and misrepresentation in real estate history. The plan was to sell a piece of property which they did not own to a motivated buyer who had not bothered to ask to see the deed to the land in question.
The year was 1626 and there was no deed, because the wise guys were a band from the Canarsie Tribe of the Lenape Nation. The Lenape did not know of the concept of buying and selling land back then. But the traveling swindlers from across the river knew a good deal when they saw one. So, when Peter Minuit, the director of the Dutch North America Colony of New Netherland offered to pay them 60 guilders worth of beads and metal items in exchange for the entire Island of Manhattan, they accepted as fast as they might have had Minuit offered to pay for all the sunshine on Earth.
The “$24 worth of beads” narrative is usually told to make the Lenape seem like the innocent victims of the Dutch Colonist. The truth is that the group who Peter Minuit dealt with were merely in Manhattan hunting. If Minuit wanted to purchase Manhattan legitimately, there were numerous local bands of the Lenape who lived in settlements on Manhattan Island year-round. Instead, for some reason, these travelers from Canarsie were able to convince him and his delegation to meet them in upper Manhattan. There, in what is now Inwood Park, they consummated their deal.
Incidentally, Manhattan which the Lenape called Manhantes, and the Dutch changed to Mannahata, was sold for the equivalent of $1,025 in today’s money according to scholars. The Canarsie Lenape were not foolish savages as the legend would have you believe. If anything, they were opportunistic hustlers, but in the big picture, they shot themselves in the foot. In time these same Dutch Settlers would establish New Amsterdam and overrun the Lenape.
The region, which today is known as the New York metropolitan area, was once known as Lenapehoking or the land of the Lenape. By the time the British seized control of New Amsterdam and changed its name to New York, many of the Lenape had been killed off as a result of conflicts with Dutch settlers leading to bloodshed and retribution on both sides. The woes of the Lenape didn’t end there, unfortunately. The remnants of the Lenape nation were eventually banished from their ancestral lands and sent to live on reservations in Wisconsin and Oklahoma by the U.S. government as part of the native American Removal Act of 1830.
It is a sad story, but one which we cannot forget. That brings me to today’s day trip. I recommend that anytime you are down near Battery Park you should take a moment to visit the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum houses several exhibits showcasing native American art and culture. A 45-minute walk through will allow enough time for you to enjoy and absorb them all.
There is no better place to appreciate the culture and history of the Lenape and the many other Native American tribes who once called this land their home. We live in a different time and may find it difficult to justify what became of them. However, that does not mean that we should ignore that part of our history. There are lessons to be learned from the past. To benefit from them fully, we must face our history with sincerity.
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